One of France’s leading weekly news magazines in April ran the headline: “The CGT brings back class struggle”. On morning TV on 24 May, Socialist Party president François Hollande was insisting, sweating, “The situation is quite different from that of 1968”!
Through April and May, millions of workers and students have taken to the streets in more than a hundred towns across the country for seven separate days of action against the hated new labour law proposed by the Socialist Party. An opinion poll in early May showed that 74 percent of the population were opposed to it.
Only 3 percent of those asked declared themselves “completely in favour” of the law and 22 percent “moderately in favour”! But the first reading of the bill was rushed through parliament by means of a special order, which allows the government to refuse any debate. The bill now has to go through the Senate and other stages, which will take weeks, and the movement against it is not about to give up.
Union leaders have been unwilling to go beyond one-day strikes, partly in fear of bringing down the government and risking the right wing parties, which are even more hostile to union rights, coming to office.
But because the law is worse than the right’s attacks when they were in government, millions want to go further. This is why the movement was waiting for a rank and file initiative to take the struggle forward. It came in late May from oil workers.
The riot police attacked some blockades in the middle of the night, but authorities are hesitant. A decisive deepening of strike action now can defeat the government.
Other rail workers, Paris metro workers and civil servants will be on strike for the eighth and ninth days of action in the next two weeks, and the leader of the CGT, the most militant of the union federations, is now playing an excellent role, calling for a “generalisation of strikes” until the bill is withdrawn.
This bosses’ charter, unveiled several weeks ago, went much further than right wing former president Nicholas Sarkozy had dared to when he was in office. It aimed to slash compensation for unfair dismissals, allow apprentices and others to work far longer hours, cut employer obligations for medical supervision of workers and reduce payment for overtime. Worst of all, it would allow any local agreement to trump national rights won decades ago and impose worse conditions than existing national minimums.
Not daring to abolish national rights directly, the bosses are hoping that fear of unemployment will allow them to bully local union reps into signing away hard-won guarantees.
After a first day of action in March, the government backtracked on a couple of the bill’s provisions – enough to win the agreement of the most conservative of the union confederations, the CFDT – but the essential core of the bill remains.
Prime minister Valls and president Hollande are rightly very worried by the fight back. Just 10 years ago a huge, historic movement of students and workers forced the right wing government to withdraw a law destroying labour rights for younger workers, even though the movement rose up weeks after the law had been voted through parliament.
Since he was elected in 2012, Hollande has given plenty of tax breaks to the bosses and maintained a pay freeze for public sector workers and a severe brake on recruitment of replacements for retirees. But, over the last 30 years, the French ruling class has had less success smashing job security and working conditions than in most European countries. The bosses are impatient, and this law is much more savage. The right wing press were crowing: “At last Hollande is daring to modernise France”. They are showing signs of panic now that the movement is on the rise.
The authorities have used much higher levels of police violence than in some years, making the most of the state of emergency declared after the terrorist attacks in November. On May Day, the traditional union demonstration was attacked by riot police for the first time in 35 years. A young man in Nantes lost an eye when shot with a flashball gun, and numerous videos of police beating up young people are circulating. In one video you can hear a police inspector giving instructions to his men before they attack: “Use maximum violence”, he says.
Demonstrators are risking long prison sentences. “Black bloc” groups attacking the police or smashing up shops are used to try to discredit the movement. Indeed, such elitist small-group tactics put other demonstrators in danger and have been shown to facilitate police infiltration. But they are in no way comparable, in terms of destroying people’s lives, to the government’s labour law proposal.
Islamophobia: divide and rule
In a textbook piece of divide and rule politics, prime minister Valls declared last month that the fight for “culture and identity” is more important than the fight for a stronger economy and against unemployment.
He claimed that “Salafism is winning the battle for Islam in France”, and this week he has attacked supposed “Islamo-leftists” (a label I am happy to wear, in the context). He thinks that widespread Islamophobia on the left (including on the far left, despite some hard-won progress over 20 years) will allow his message of hate to hit home with little opposition, and he is relying on the fact that most people have no idea what Salafism is. Muslim headscarves, he went on to claim, aim at “making women subservient”. In parallel moves, a defamatory campaign to ban the Oxford-based left-reformist Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan has been in all the media.
The left is paying the price now for its refusal to actively fight Islamophobia in recent decades: the government and the far right have at their disposal an easy weapon to put a wedge in working class unity and create racist division. The right wing press is publishing paranoid supplements on the dangers of supposed masses of extremist Muslims in France, and most of the activist left is saying almost nothing in reply.
Even anti-capitalist groups are deeply divided over Islamophobia, and their leaders tend to avoid the issue.
Nevertheless, despite playing his best cards – police violence, denouncing young rioters and flattering the Islamophobes – prime minister Valls’ popularity is at a record low. Only 22 percent of the population have confidence in him.
New forms of action
One exciting aspect of the situation is the re-emergence of forms of action not seen for some years. Dozens of high schools were blockaded by students to allow young people to go to the demonstrations without being disciplined for missing classes.
A few universities were also blockaded, and many more have been organising mass meetings, speak-outs, films screenings and debates about the labour law and workers’ rights more generally.
A National Students’ Coordination has been meeting, with delegates from more than 40 universities. It has demanded not only the abandoning of the labour law, but also the repeal of the state of emergency, which has targeted activists and Muslims alike.
Inspired by the occupations of public squares a few years back in Egypt, Turkey, Greece and Spain, a square occupying movement has appeared on a large scale, calling itself “Up All Night” (Nuit debout). Thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of people have gathered in the Place de la République in Paris every night, and similar events have been organised in dozens of other squares around the country (in Strasbourg, Nantes and Toulouse, in particular).
People listen to refugees and strikers, defenders of sustainable agriculture or high school students, and actions are organised in defence of arrested demonstrators or in support of other demands. A tremendous public forum dedicated to people’s power has been opened up. Commissions organise sit-ins, first aid, food or music.
Such forums are, among other things, a sign of distrust in the mainstream political parties of the left, though the debates are very political. Debates on education or bullfighting, Islamophobia or working class suburbs can be heard every night.
The public square forums are not cut off from action. Groups from Up All Night have been demonstrating with refugees, supporting the occupation by theatre employees of workplaces and twinning with groups of rail workers. Many understand the particular importance of workers’ action, and meetings on “bringing the struggles together” invite trade union activists and leaders to debates on how to move towards a general strike. National CGT union federation leader Philippe Martinez joined the debate in Paris two weeks ago.
The Up All Night movement has been going strong for more than two months. It is no exaggeration to say that a new generation of activists is being formed. In Paris, the running is being made by non-party activists, but in provincial towns, members of various radical left parties are often central.
Apart from the fragility of the government and the horrors of the new labour law proposal, political debate is living in the shadow of the 2017 presidential elections.
Hollande is beating all records for unpopularity for a president, despite the terrorist atrocities one would expect to encourage feelings of national unity. Yet the conservatives can’t seem to find a candidate who will unite the right. Sarkozy, ousted in 2012, is back in the race, having left politics for a few years. But scandals about illegal funding of his campaigns loom large, and sections of the right no longer have confidence in him.
In France, presidential and other elections take place in two rounds. In the first round, there are several candidates; the second is a run-off between the two most popular. Many on the left are panicked by the sadly realistic possibility of a second round run-off between the traditional right and the fascist Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front. Le Pen had her father thrown out of the party and managed to “modernise” its image, putting forward, for example, a spokesman who is gay. For the moment, because the class struggle is so intense, she is inaudible. But she has high levels of passive electoral support.
The fear of such a second round run-off has led a number of Communists and other left reformists to propose “primaries of the left” to choose a single left candidate before the first round, and logically eliminate the danger of the left being absent in the second round (since all primary candidates would promise to support the winner). But would it really be possible for the radical left to campaign for Hollande or Hollande’s candidate, now that the Socialist Party has moved so far in favour of the bosses? The idea of left primaries seems to be dead on its feet.
Jean Luc Mélenchon of the left reformist Left Party, and a fine speaker for class struggle politics, intends to run. His campaign is likely to be boosted by his plan, if elected, to push through constitutional changes and call new elections. The New Anticapitalist Party and Lutte Ouvrière (Workers’ Struggle) will each have their own candidate.
A movement victory against the labour law will reinvigorate tremendously the struggle against austerity, and for trade unionism and solidarity, but it will also change the prospects for the elections. It will make it easier for left reformist and revolutionary ideas based on class struggle to take root in a new generation of activists and voters.
This is despite the many weaknesses of the revolutionary left. Organisations such as Lutte Ouvrière have reacted with sectarianism to the Up All Night movement. Organisations such as the New Anticapitalist Party or Ensemble (my own group) are extremely federalist (branches in each town do more or less what they want; the party newspaper is non-existent or little used).
Ultra-leftism is widespread: many revolutionary activists applauded the vandalising of Socialist Party offices in different towns, not understanding that these actions made the government’s attacks easier by reinforcing party loyalty in the left wing of the Socialist Party. (This situation was worsened a couple of days ago when the Socialist Party’s offices in Grenoble were hit by 12 bullets from a gun). In anti-fascist networks, it is not rare to hear, “The Socialist Party is fascist too”. Such attitudes make it much harder to persuade workers who have contradictory attitudes to the Socialist Party to join the struggle – in Up All Night or elsewhere.
These are exciting times to be an anti-capitalist revolutionary in France, though progress will be easier the more anti-capitalists understand that a dose of centralisation does not have to be bureaucratic and oppressive, but can be democratic and invigorating.
Recruiting new revolutionaries is going slowly indeed and needs to be made a priority, but on the demonstrations and in the meetings we are beginning to see young adults newly involved. And political meetings are the one place where I enjoy feeling old, since it means that fresh troops are arriving.
John Mullen is an activist from the anti-capitalist organisation Ensemble, and lives in the Paris region.